Rule No. 1 for Planners: Be a New-Media Whiz

Teams Take Pains to Stay on Top of Technology Trends, Know Where Consumers Will Turn Next

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The ever-growing list of media possibilities makes the 50,000-plus beverage combinations at Starbucks seem simple, even manageable.
Open shot: Massive signage in Las Vegas was linked to a mobile effort for Adidas and NBA
Open shot: Massive signage in Las Vegas was linked to a mobile effort for Adidas and NBA

But somehow media planners not only need to be nimble enough to stay on top of the wave, they must be ready for whatever comes next.

"When TV was born, it was one thing. When cable was born, it was still the same medium," says Kathleen Brookbanks, managing director-organizational development, OMD, Chicago. "It's not that we get a two-year program and we'll have it all figured out. [We need] a long-term commitment to always be learning. ... What we call 'emerging' today will be embedded in five years, and we'll be handling three new media."

Preparing for emerging media
Agencies such as Omnicom Group's OMD, Publicis Groupe's MediaVest and Starcom, and Interpublic Group of Cos.' Universal McCann have enacted training programs.

And while the agencies construct organizational arks to take them into the future, they are relying on their media planners to lash together fractured media to keep them afloat today.

"It's the responsibility of the people on the strategic-planning side to really understand the consumer ... and where's the best place to connect with those brand messages," says Marla Kaplowitz, senior VP-communications planning director, MediaVest, New York. "It's a question of how you drive people in terms of an experience. And when you use print or radio to link to mobile, it all starts to integrate."

The young ones
The good news is that today's junior-level employees are proving adept at maneuvering in this media soup. Usage manuals have little value when fiddling will teach them the ropes in about half the time it would take to read the rules. To millennials, there's nothing fractured about media -- it just is.

For Carat VP-Adidas Account Director Fidel Parente, 32, it's just intuitive. He calls the process of planning for all these different types of media "organized chaos with a flow to it all." Mr. Parente recently led Adidas' initiative in Las Vegas for the NBA's All-Star Weekend. Putting to work his belief that traditional forms of media coupled with new forms empower both, he used basketball jerseys on Las Vegas landmarks and outdoor signage to drive consumers to mobile. More than 1,000 people responded to mobile offers, an impressive ROI metric, and many more people posted their camera-phone photos to their websites.

"Advertisers like to control strategy and destiny," he says, "but there comes a point when consumers are going to take it, own it, control it, and there is nothing you can do. It's control flip. You manage it to a certain point, and you have to hand it over. ... No one is comfortable letting go, but you have no option. There's no stopping it."

Similarly, power in planning has gone topsy-turvy. Whereas executives who had many years of experience with traditional media and deep contacts once brought young planners along, now employees fresh out of college can hold insights necessary to the future of media agencies.

Deeper understanding
Brian McHale, president of Empower MediaMarketing, Cincinnati, keeps this in mind when staffing. "We want people that have already embraced emerging technologies, people who understand how to use it, people who live and die with it, because I don't. Some of our other senior people don't live and die with new technologies. Sure, we've all got our BlackBerries and iPods and DVRs, but we are certainly using them in different ways."

Several agencies cite a "culture of curiosity" as the most important element to bringing an entire agency up to speed on emerging platforms and helping it peek around the corner at what's ahead. Wayne Fletcher, global head of communications planning, Universal McCann, London, calls curiosity "the engine of true understanding, innovation and progress." Universal McCann is using this approach to help its client Bacardi change its communication to focus more on mobile and internet media. That curiosity "means you can suspend conventional wisdom before you come up with an answer and you will always seek to find the right answer for your client," Mr. Fletcher says.

Amusement perks
Enter the agency media labs. They are the technological playgrounds where older employees can jump into new media forms, where younger employees can get their hands on products that they may be unable to afford personally, where clients can understand how a medium may be applicable to their brands, and where consumers can come in and help planners understand how media really are being used.

"Every day, try to do something different" is Keith McKay's mantra. He doesn't ask that his employees at Optimedia's Seattle offices, where he's senior VP-strategic communications director, become early adopters of every media trend, but he does believe that curiosity makes for well-rounded planners.

"It's one thing to read the papers and studies -- and you should do all that -- but you need to understand more than the numbers or facts behind emerging media," he says. "A lot of these understandings will not be measurable or quantifiable in the same way our clients are used to. They won't fit into the mold, and you need to present it in a compelling way. Here are the statistics, but here's the motivation."

Finding time to Wii-lax
His biggest challenge is allowing employees the space and time to be curious, to play on Second Life, to attend a bull-riding competition or to experience a video game how true gamers would, with techniques such as players swinging a Wii controller.

Ms. Brookbanks likes to think of OMD's job-sharing program as a sort of cross-pollination through which two employees -- one from a digital medium, the other a traditional medium -- are paired up to teach each other everything they know over the course of several months.

MediaVest has a two-year-old program that allows planners to rotate through the various media disciplines, and Universal McCann is planning a similar initiative. All the agencies provide training on the digital mind-set throughout the year in order to quickly embed it into how planners approach their jobs. At the same time, media agencies are hiring planners at all levels from disciplines they may not have looked at five years ago: fashion, architecture and gaming to name a few.

Branching out
"This is about diversity ... in thought and different perspectives in people coming together," Ms. Kaplowitz says. "As we bring different types of people into the agency, we need to ensure that we are open to different ways of thinking."

No longer are agencies separating out individual new media as they once did with interactive. Today it is all about creating a process by which media are explored, understood and utilized. Mr. Fletcher describes his ideal structure as a combination of experts within a client team. "They are teams of people with diverse skills plus a generalist who is strong in the area of consumer understanding and brand value."

"When people love both technology as well as media, they really understand the new emerging platforms," Ms. Brookbanks says. "They get it from the consumer's point of view; they know how it gets used. There isn't the right, established way to plan for new and emerging media, and they have great instincts about how to deal with it on our side of the business."
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